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Tony Stewart still center stage in NASCAR, but this time for winning the Atlanta 500 pole

Tony Stewart still center stage in NASCAR, but this time for winning the Atlanta 500 pole

Tony Stewart, in a better mood after winning the Atlanta 500 pole


  By Mike Mulhern
   This is where Tony Stewart launched his amazing title charge one year ago, and Friday night he made another statement by winning the pole -- quite a rarity for him over his 14-year career -- for Sunday evening's Atlanta 500.
   "I'm not known as a qualifier," Stewart (186.121 mph) said in understatement, after only the 14th pole of his career. "I give Ryan Newman credit for some advice today. He said to try running high. So I did. I've been coming here for years and I've never seen us running up  at the top like we are right now."
   Stewart may need a shot in the arm this weekend, as the sport heads toward the playoffs, because Stewart hasn't exactly been dominating lately. 
   "We've had three bad weeks in a row (27th at Bristol, 32nd at Michigan with a blown engine, and 19th at Watkins Glen)," Stewart said.
   Perhaps that, plus the controversy surrounding his run-in at Bristol with Matt Kenseth, may be a reason for Stewart's oddly subdued attitude Friday.
     This very fast 1-1/2-mile track is a driver favorite, because it has several grooves and tires fall off over a 100-mile run, creating different tactical scenarios.
    However this track is also rather predictable -- drivers who tend to run well here invariably run well every time. And the top drivers here: Jimmie Johnson, Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Matt Kenseth.
   Sunday's winner will likely be one of those, or one of the fastest qualifiers, like Greg Biffle, Mark Martin or Denny Hamlin.
   One man who has to win here is Carl Edwards, the man with by far the best finishing average last season...who is on the verge of missing this year's playoffs.
   The men who are already locked into a spot in the playoffs, which open Sept 18th in Chicago, can afford to gamble here, or like Hamlin experiment with setups that they might want to use at one of the five similar 'chase' tracks.
   On the other hand, the half dozen men vying for those two wild card playoff spots can gamble too. In fact they almost certainly have to gamble, as Edwards did last weekend at Bristol, running out of gas with just a few miles to go.
    This Labor Day weekend race is the only Cup event here this season. Track owner moved the track's long-time second Cup weekend to his new Kentucky Speedway.
   The stock car tour comes here on a high, with a string of exciting races, and a huge crowd at Bristol, where controversy reigned.
   And this Labor Day weekend has been somewhat troublesome for NASCAR the past few years. The Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C. was for decades the sport's traditional Labor Day event. Then in 2005, after weak crowds, the race weekend was moved to Los Angeles...where it faced even hotter weather, 100-degrees-plus, and didn't fare well either. 
   So NASCAR moved the race here.
   Now Atlanta Motor Speedway has been playing host to NASCAR events since 1960, but Atlanta has a reputation as a poor sports town, and events here -- although frequently wild and dramatic -- haven't boasted huge crowds.
   To help pump up marketing for this race weekend track boss Ed Clark has invited well-known Southern comic, Jeff Foxworthy.
  "Some of the earliest Redneck jokes were centered on NASCAR," Foxworthy says. 
   And he's got a bucketful of them.
   You might be a Redneck...
    -- "If you think the most effective form of advertising is on the hood of a car going 200 mph....
    -- "If you've ever put a race car on a prayer list...
    --  "If you think the last four words of the National Anthem are 'Gentlemen, start your engines.'
    Foxworthy takes note of this as the 20th anniversary of not only Richard Petty's last race but also Jeff Gordon's first.
   Gordon back then, at 21, of course boasted a weird little mustache.
   -- "Jeff Gordon's mustache was not in the league with mine and Dale Earnhardt's mustache," Foxworthy said. "It was more of a caterpillar mustache, It wasn't a big Dale Sr. mustache. 
    "I've had this since 11th grade. I don't know if I have a lip anymore. This might just be runaway nose hairs, I don't know."
   -- Foxworthy, on living with fame: "I say to my wife sometimes now, this must be like what handicapped people feel, because when you walk into a room, people stare at you. Knowing what you know about yourself, I'm not worth staring at. I'm two decisions from dry walling."
    -- Foxworthy, on Bristol's madness and rough-and-tumble NASCAR: "I kind of miss those days in NASCAR. I loved when Dale used to get mad at somebody and put him in the wall. 
    "I remember watching that and thinking 'How do you ever top this?' It's one of the greatest sporting moments in history
         "I have a buddy that used to say they wanted to see a wreck because they think 'I'm working two jobs... my life is hard as hell... but he's on fire, so I'm doing better than he is. 
            "I kind of miss those days in NASCAR. I'm sure that's politically incorrect... but I loved when Dale would get mad at somebody and just boot him into the wall. I'm sure I'll get pulled into the (NASCAR) trailer for saying that." 
   -- Foxworthy, on life: "Every year you should go to the fair. Because after five minutes you're going to feel better about your own family. You see people at the fair that people in Africa send money to help."

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